A Town Called Malice review: New Sky crime series is more brawn than brains

Jack Rowan (left) as Gene and Jason Flemyng as Albert  (Cristina Ríos Bordón/Sky)
Jack Rowan (left) as Gene and Jason Flemyng as Albert (Cristina Ríos Bordón/Sky)

Is there any corner of the globe left untouched by the British crime drama? If it’s not Kenneth Branagh stalking through the inky expanses of the Swedish winter, or Roger Allam quaffing rosé in Provence, it’s Ralf Little, Ben Miller, Kris Marshall or Ardal O’Hanlon nicking killers (and evading taxes) in Guadeloupe. Now, British crime turns its attention to the Costa del Sol with A Town Called Malice (Sky Max). a pulpy, blood-soaked vision of Brits abroad. “Death arrives on the Costa,” growls the local Spanish detective. “I like it.”

Gene (Jack Rowan) is the youngest of the Lord brothers, heirs-apparent to a south-London crime family. But he’s different, determined to make it as a newspaper journalist. “My family couldn’t lie in bed straight, but that’s not me,” he tells Cindy (Tahirah Sharif), a beautiful bartender. Soon enough, Gene and Cindy are engaged to be married, but crime waits for no wedding. Lord patriarch Albert (Jason Flemyng) and older brother Len (the brilliantly named Lex Shrapnel) rope Gene into a skirmish – “The Battle of Bermondsey”, the title card announces – which climaxes with Cindy running over a police officer. And so, for their own safety, Gene and Cindy are exiled to the Costa del Siberia.

The show’s creator, Nick Love, is well-known in British cinema for films such as The Football Factory and The Firm, both about football hooliganism, as well as the 2012 remake of The Sweeney. His milieu is a London filled with grifters and grafters, small-time syndicates and sawn-off shotguns. And with Malice he is not revamping that formula. His return to television, after the cancellation of Sky’s Bulletproof, might also involve getting away from south London, but the Costa del Sol is a notorious enclave of British crooks. It’s not uncharted territory for the English gangster movie – think Jonathan Glazer’s Sexy Beast – and Love is not an experimental filmmaker. “Just cos they eat octopus,” Gene’s mum, Mint Ma (Martha Plimpton, doing a serviceable, if wobbly, London accent) declares, “don’t make the police down here any better.”

A Town Called Malice is vibrant and stylish. Neon signs and street lettering spell out plot information, while blood spatters land on a camera lens and then stay there as it sweeps through the next shot. For a TV show named after a song that’s named after a book that’s named after a place, A Town Called Malice is, unsurprisingly, referential. Each episode is named after an Eighties hit, from “I Want To Know What Love Is” to “Daddy Cool”, and the soundtrack is a carnival of Gen X nostalgia, from Spandau Ballet to The Buggles.

These joyful excesses are, sadly, not enough to rein in its subtleties – or lack thereof. The actors are not helped by cardboard dialogue (“We need to talk,” Albert tells his son, ominously, “boy to man”) and the emotional profundity is rarely more than puddle deep (and that’s an Andalusian puddle, so: pretty dry). Perhaps expecting these things from Nick Love is a foolish pursuit, especially when he’s such a competent purveyor of the mockney mobster, but it does feel like eight hour-long episodes on a prestige broadcaster might’ve benefited from something resembling the human experience. And for a show that uses the death of a single copper to catalyse all its plot mechanics, it becomes increasingly unconcerned by individual mortality.

Love’s return to TV is, then, a schlocky, over-saturated mess. But it’s never boring, nor does it take itself too seriously. It is admirably unrestrained in a genre where restraint has been all the rage. It’s just a shame, then, that its vivacious styling couldn’t be matched by a smarter script. Fittingly, for a show where the characters are quicker to violence than quips, A Town Called Malice is more brawn than brains.